How Pittsburgh Became a Global Powerhouse for Sustainable Progress

Photo:  Vidar Nordli -Mathisen

People across the country are using the Sustainable Development Goals as a road map to recover better by turning these global ambitions into local action.

In Pittsburgh, that means reimagining the city’s industrial roots to spark social change and economic transformation through world-class research, collaboration, and innovation.

Nowadays, Joylette Portlock doesn’t need to define “sustainability” to most people.

But when the nonprofit she oversees, Sustainable Pittsburgh, first launched nearly a quarter-century ago, the word hadn’t yet become a household term.

Since 1998, the organization has served a 10-county region in southwestern Pennsylvania, including Pittsburgh, the Steel City. But unlike other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) with narrower missions, Sustainable Pittsburgh is unique in its commitment to sustainability in the broadest sense — from access to clean air and water to public transportation and quality jobs — through its focus on connecting people across the community.

The organization’s comprehensive, systems-level approach became even more vital with the outbreak of COVID-19, which altered how nearly everyone on the planet works, lives, and even eats. For the most vulnerable in the southwestern Pennsylvania region, the pandemic wreaked disproportionate havoc — and revealed just how interconnected everything is.

“You can’t talk about climate without talking about education, without talking about the economy, without talking about equity,” Joylette said during a discussion in summer 2020 with the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh. “These things are all tied together. … If we really want to see these changes, we have to start creating new and better and deeper collaboration.”

This interconnected lens epitomizes the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of 17 universal aims that have united the Pittsburgh community — and the world — as a blueprint for building a better future for all.


One of COVID-19’s cruelest ironies is that many of the same people pushed into hunger earned their living in food service. In Pittsburgh, as elsewhere, the global shutdown in spring 2020 led to huge economic losses for the city’s residents — particularly those working in restaurants. The pandemic exposed the vulnerability of those working minimum-wage jobs as servers, cooks, and delivery drivers. In fact, Pennsylvania lawmakers rolled out a statewide $145 million recovery program specifically for the hospitality industry because the sector was among the hardest hit. With less demand from local restaurants, farmers and food producers in the region also suffered.

Meanwhile, as schools and businesses shuttered across southwestern Pennsylvania, food insecurity, especially among students who relied on free school breakfasts and lunches, rose 31% over 2019 levels, according to the state’s Department of Human Services.

In response, Joylette and her team at Sustainable Pittsburgh, in collaboration with CRAFT at Chatham University, launched a unique solution called Allegheny Eats to address these interconnected problems. By purchasing a meal kit through the program, Pittsburgh residents not only helped provide free meals to service industry professionals affected by the pandemic, they also supported local farmers and food producers while reducing food waste across the region. The pilot program ran for six months and delivered 14,000 meals to employees in the area’s service industry.

And Allegheny Eats was a community effort. The food was partially sourced from 15 local farms and food producers and prepared by six local restaurants. The city of Pittsburgh, CRAFT at Chatham University, and 412 Food Rescue, a local nonprofit that redistributes surplus food from restaurants and grocery stores to hungry families, were among 10 local partners that helped launch the initiative.

“Our work sits at the intersection of equity, environmental stewardship, and economic development,” Joylette says. “And as you can imagine over the past year and a half, this mission has only become more important and essential.”

"Our work sits at the intersection of equity, environmental stewardship, and economic development, this mission has only become more important and essential."

Joylette Portrlock

Executive Director, Sustainable Pittsburgh

Joylette’s work involves connecting with Pittsburghers like Leah Lizarondo, the co-founder of 412 Food Rescue, a nod to the city’s area code.

Leah’s organization, which salvages and redistributes surplus food across the Western Pennsylvania region, uses a technology platform and mobile app called Food Rescue Hero to connect 800 food retailers, 600 nonprofit partners, and 12,000 volunteers. The result? More than 20 million pounds of food saved, the equivalent of 18 million meals and 11 million pounds of carbon dioxide emissions mitigated from local landfills since 412 Food Rescue’s launch in 2015.

The Food Rescue platform has already been expanded to Cleveland, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other U.S. cities. Leah’s long-term aim is expanding to 100 cities worldwide by 2030, a deadline that lines up with the SDGs. Her organization specifically tackles Goal 2: Zero Hunger and Goal 12: Responsible Consumption and Production.
Achieving these goals, which include halving global food waste and ensuring universal access to nutritious food, would have enormous ramifications for issues across the global goals: poverty, health, even climate change. Food waste, Leah notes, is one of the largest contributors of carbon emissions.


Rethinking its approach to food security is just one way Pittsburgh is reinventing its industrial roots to become a local and global hub on sustainability.

The city has witnessed an economic revival in recent years. It’s now home to robotics and software engineering campuses for Google, Apple, Uber, and other companies. When President Joe Biden unveiled the White House’s $2 trillion climate-focused jobs and infrastructure plan in the spring, he chose the Steel City as his backdrop to announce plans for electric vehicle charging stations and a zero-emissions economy. In September, three members of President Biden’s Cabinet traveled to Pittsburgh to host the inaugural meeting of the newly formed U.S.-European Union Trade and Technology Council.

Pittsburgh, once known the world over as the Steel City, no longer has any steel mills within city limits. Photo: Rivers of Steel.

At the center of Pittsburgh’s revitalized global standing is widespread recognition that sustainability is the best way to strengthen the region’s economic future and improve the lives of its residents. The SDGs act as a common framework to forge plans, hold the city accountable, and weave together the many activities and partners working in this broad arena.

Pittsburgh was one of the first cities in the U.S. to formally integrate the Sustainable Development Goals into its city plans and policies, following years of leadership on sustainability. Since 2015, it has produced a series of analyses focused on building resilient, equitable, and inclusive communities, including the ONEPGH Resilience Strategy and multiple publications on inequality across gender and race. One study found, for example, that the rate of hospitalizations from asthma is approximately four times as high for black children as for their white peers in Alleghany County. Findings from these reports led to the creation of an Office of Equity and the first Chief Equity Officer within the city government. And in 2020, as a further sign of the political commitment to the SDGs, the city became the third U.S. community to release a Voluntary Local Review of its progress on the global goals.

This commitment to the SDGs extends far beyond city hall. Take the Allegheny Conference, for example, an association of private sector leaders including the Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce and the Economy League of Greater Pittsburgh. In 2019, around the same time that the city’s mayor and local universities were announcing their commitments to these global goals, the Allegheny Conference publicly outlined its sustainability principles using the SDGs as a starting point. Its 10-year plan for the region includes members’ commitment to uphold and promote regional cooperation on the global goals as a way to build vitality.

For her architecture class at Carnegie Mellon, Assistant Professor Erica Cochran Hameen illustrates the link between sustainability, architecture, and the SDGs by bringing her students to local elementary schools in Pittsburgh, where they examine how the built environment — including poor air quality and mold in the classroom — affects a child’s ability to learn. (Photo by Ruchie Kothari/CMU)

“Pittsburgh’s re-emergence as an international city has everything to do with the collaboration between the philanthropic community, the business community, and the municipal community,” Majestic Lane, former Deputy Chief of Staff and Chief Equity Officer for Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto, said at an event hosted by the UN Foundation and the Brookings Institution in September 2020. “We’re no stranger to collaboration, and that’s really the key that runs through this conversation of grounding the Sustainable Development Goals.”

“Being part of a global community allows us to see what’s happening in other places where we can learn from — and also how we could measure it,” Majestic says.


Perhaps owing to the homegrown resilience that comes from living in the Rust Belt, the people of Pittsburgh are proving that the best way to succeed is to stick together. Collaboration among all sectors — public, private, nonprofit, and academic — has been crucial to the city’s reinvention and recovery. It’s also a fundamental principle for those working to implement and advance sustainability as the last and perhaps most important of the SDGs (Goal 17: Partnerships).

Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), for example, has been a crucial partner in Pittsburgh’s transformation and the city’s taking up of the global goals.

Like other university towns, the city has worked closely with Carnegie Mellon and companies like Google and Uber to draw in new business. CMU alone generates roughly $2.7 billion in economic impact for Pittsburgh each year, according to one study commissioned by the school in 2017. CMU’s Robotics Institute, founded in 1979, has spawned an engineering center that commercializes campus inventions, earning Pittsburgh the new moniker “Robot Town.”

Carnegie Mellon University has been a driving factor in Pittsburgh’s revitalization — and its focus on the Sustainable Development Goals. Photo: Nanda Firdaus /Unsplash

CMU is also a leader locally, and globally, on the SDGs. In 2020, it became the first university in the world to create and publish a review of how its operations, curricula, and research align with the goals. The report, known as a Voluntary University Review, was spearheaded by faculty members, administrators, staff, and students through a campus-wide Sustainability Initiative created by Provost James Garrett to advance the SDGs.

“We recognize that sustainability goes beyond environmental topics to include critical issues of equity and inclusion,” Garrett said during the report launch. “By using the common language of the SDGs, we can link our education, research and practices to help shape a more sustainable and equitable future for all.”

"By using the common language of the SDGs, we can link our education, research and practices to help shape a more sustainable and equitable future for all."

James Garrett

Provost, Carnegie Mellon University

Alex Hiniker, Carnegie Mellon’s Executive Fellow for Sustainability Initiatives, coordinated the voluntary review process, bringing her experience leading the New York City Mayor’s Office in their effort to become the first city in the world to report its local progress on the global goals directly to the UN. She has consistently emphasized that the report or the local review is only one step. “It is really the start of an ongoing process. In this first phase, we’re figuring out what’s happening across the 17 goals. The next step is to determine how we can amplify existing activities and identify opportunities to enhance collaboration.”

CMU continues to build on this work across its campus, including identifying ways to empower students with resources and support. It launched a challenge fund to support student projects that advance the SDGs and is working with students and faculty to map its courses to each of the 17 goals. This summer, Carnegie Mellon faculty and students began examining how COVID-19 relief and recovery funding is shaping social justice across communities, using the global goals as key indicators.

Pittsburgh has undergone a major transformation over several decades, from a historic industrial town to a world-class city attracting talent across sectors. Photo: Rivers of Steel.

Sarah Mendelson, Distinguished Service Professor of Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon and former U.S. Ambassador to the UN’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), is leading the project. “If the overarching goal of the SDGs is to ‘leave no one behind,’ but we find, say, 10% of a population is experiencing food insecurity or an increase in homelessness, then we need disaggregated data to understand who in fact is being affected,” she says. “The combination of data and engaging local communities will help us analyze whether and how social justice needs are or are not being met. We want to ensure that we come through this pandemic with more just recovery than unjust and unequal recovery. How this evolves will be critical to achieving the 2030 agenda.”

Leah, a Carnegie Mellon alumna, now teaches a course at the school on social entrepreneurship and the global goals. In 2019, she won the WE Empower UN SDG challenge, a global award for women social entrepreneurs.

One of her cornerstone lessons is that even the most ambitious targets like Goal 2: Zero Hunger can be achieved if everyone plays a part. “It’s about balancing the belief that they can make a difference versus the sense of despair that it’s too large of a problem to even tackle,” she says.

To that end, she’s teamed up with staff at Metro21 Smart Cities Institute, which is part of Carnegie Mellon, to help her optimize the Food Rescue app from an equity standpoint by making sure every food-insecure community is served at a fair rate.


Of course, all of these issues — access to food, technology, and education — are intertwined. Facing this complexity is part of what makes the SDGs so effective. At the same time, this framework prioritizes that the most vulnerable among us aren’t left behind.

For Joylette, it’s just the beginning.“I think it would surprise people how much work on sustainability is being done here,” she says. “This sustainability work is happening, not just in the city of Pittsburgh, but really throughout the county and the state.”

Examining both the region’s problems and progress through the prism of the SDGs has revealed unexpected connections to one another — and the rest of the world.

As one local official put it, these goals connect local activity with global reality.

Now leaders and change-makers across Pennsylvania can see the bigger picture more clearly: With sustainability and equity in focus, everyone can thrive.

This story is part of a larger project launched by the UN Foundation and the Brookings Institution to build and support American leadership on the SDGs.